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G - 153 : Marseille - Geography as Destiny


Entrance to Marseille's Greek Harbor - Fort St Jean, built by Louis XIV, protects the port


Always wondered why Greek settlers decided to make Marseille their preeminent port in the western Mediterranean. It was such an atypical decision. The great Greek settlements we discovered during our journeys since 2017 were all in places with rich agricultural potential. Syracuse, Cortone, Taranto & Sibari fit the bill or the Greek settlements on the Black Sea.

Marseille in 2004 from Space - the town is hemmed in by limestone hills and has no river


Marseille is a barren place. Sitting in a large limestone trough, there is little water and no arable land. Its location reminds me of Athens also located in a rather barren landscape (F-131: The Explosion of Athens) The scarcity of water was always a limiting factor for the development of Marseille and would stay this way until the 19th century.

Average Precipitation and Temperature 1993 - 2004: Marseille is a hot and dry place


The problem was solved in 1854 with the construction of the 50 km long Canal de Marseille. Water from the Durance River, which empties into the Rhone south of Avignon, was deviated via Aix-en-Provence to Marseille. It was an engineering master piece of the 19th century. To this day it supplies the water for most of Marseille’s households. You can easily spot it driving on the Highway A7 to Marseille.

Canal de Marseille - built in 1854 and still going strong


This leaves the question as to why the Greek settled in Marseille. We know that they initially came for copper. Greek traders showed up in Liguria in the 8th and 7th century BC. Copper trading alone though cannot support a city. Marseille was too big. In the 4th century, it had 50’000 inhabitants – a large town for a place with little water and no food. As a reference, Athens had at that time 200’000 people and Syracuse > 1/2 million.

Model of Roman Marseille. The Temples of Apollo and Artemis are on hills, the big storage facilities on the harbor indicate the large trading volumes


Archeologic findings in today’s France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland - all part of the large Celtic realm in Europe – provides a clue. In the graves of Celtic nobles, bronze trinkets made in Greece, fine pottery from Corinth, shards of Ionian wine amphorae and jewellery from the Middle East were found. These findings support the idea of a large trading network emanating from Marseille which reached almost every single Celt. Indeed, the Rhone river gave access to Western and Northern Europe without crossing the Alps. One theory even speculates that tin from Cornwall was transported on the Seine and Rhone to the Mediterranean. But metals alone cannot explain the size of Marseille. To feed 50’000 citizen, Marseille had to import 18’000 tons of grain every year, the equivalent of 450 Kyrene type ships (E-180: Naval Sophistication in 400 BC). So many ships require a fairly big port and large storage facilities. These grain ships would all arrive during August and September.

Marseille's location and its large Harbor made it the Gateway to Western Europe in 600 BC


Researchers assume today that Marseille was a market place where raw material from all over Europe arrived and was exchanged for luxury goods from Magna Graecia and Greece. The term raw materials had a different meaning in ancient time. It included materials needed to build ships such as timber, hemp for the ropes, linen for the sails, wax to seal the planks and nails to nail them to the ship's ribs; bronze for casting helmets, hides to make leather armour, furs to keep the soldiers warm and special wood for bows, arrows and spear shafts. All towns on the Ligurian coast needed storable food in the form of grain, salted meats, cured fish, cheese, salt and pickled vegetables. Marseille must have been an incredible entrepot for goods from every place in Western Europe.

Burial Findings from Hallstatt in Austria - it was an important Salt Mine in Ancient Times. Some of these findings were produced in the Mediterranean


In the 3th century BC, when the successor states to Alexander the Great faded and Rome began to take on Carthage, Marseille sided with the young Roman Republic. It served the town well. It became Rome's hub for trading with Gaul and later a base when Rome pushed into it. Formally Marseille stayed independent until it sided with General Pompeii, Caesars arch-rival. Caesar did not like this, sanctioned Marseille's trade and directed it to rival ports such as Fréjus (Forum Julium) and Nice (Nikaia). Without income and dependent on food from the outside, Marseille could not hold out for long. The old, proud Greek harbor town lost its privileges and was integrated into the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis.

Rome in 31 BC with Gallia Narbonensis including Marseille (Massilia)


The loss of political independence did not harm Marseille’s economy. To the contrary. The port now reached its full potential. With easy access to Gaul, safe sea lanes, a great harbor, merchants who knew where to source raw materials and selling olive oil and wines from the Greek plantations, business was as good as never before.

Marseille around 1600 AD - the Medieval Town is of the same size as Greek Massalia


The town though could not grow further due to the lack of fresh water. As trading volumes increased, sailors and merchants had to dock in alternative ports. Marseille had reached its limits. The size of its medieval town is the same as the ancient Greek town. Usually, medieval towns were smaller than the Roman predecessors. Just look at Rome, where the medieval town shrank to an area between Capitol Hill and Piazza del Populo, one eighth of Rome’s size under Augustus. Ancient Marseille was never larger than Medieval Marseille. It says it all.


Sailing into the old Greek harbor this summer will be fascinating. It is now mostly a mooring place for sail boats and yachts but once we glide inside, we can easily imagine how this was the place 2’500 years ago where the western world met. Marseille's destiny was to be a port.

The old, Greek Harbor - the old Greek Town was to the left - Now Sailboats rule supreme





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